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WORKING WEEKEND: Inside <I>The Usual Suspects</I>

1 Mar, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

"You never know how a movie is going to turn out when you're making it." Those were the words of Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Marisa Tomei the other day on Fox News Channel. She was responding to one of those reliably insipid questions -- "Did you think In the Bedroom would have this effect on moviegoers, many of whom leave the theater devastated?" -- posed by one of those irritating interviewers who litter entertainment telecasts like so many mannequins at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Tomei's curt comment applies equally to DVD extras. Like Forrest Gump's mama aphorized about that box of chocolates, "You never know what you're gonna get."

That makes it all the more enjoyable when an unusually well made "making of" documentary sneaks up on you, as happened while I was watching MGM's Special Edition DVD of The Usual Suspects, due in stores April 2 ($24.98). The DVD also has a lot of other material, including two commentary tracks, deleted scenes and a "gag reel."

As the featurette -- Round Up: Deposing the Usual Suspects -- began to unfold, it seemed the editing was a bit too leisurely, lingering a tad long on the reminiscing of actors like Kevin Pollak and Stephen Baldwin, who provide some sparks off the bat by mildly but unmistakably dissing each other (the interviews were filmed separately and recently). Don't invite them to the same party.

The revered status of the 1995 release, directed by Bryan (X-Men) Singer, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay with high school chum Christopher McQuarrie, seems to have inspired its performers as much as its cult of fans. The result here is an inside look at the production that is at least an order of magnitude more incisive than the happy talk, promotional tone of typical featurettes, epitomized by HBO's First Look series.

The Usual Suspects' filmmakers' extraordinary accomplishment is piloting a plot that goes nowhere, quite literally, yet still keeps the audience entranced and guessing the whole time. Add to that foundation an ensemble of eccentric, beautifully blended performances -- Del Toro decided his character was best understood by being unintelligible and Spacey's gimpy Verbal Kint earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar -- and you have a flaky film that's a favorite because it flouts cinematic convention. Palminteri pushes it a little by calling it "a perfect movie."

That's arguable, but it is true, as he also notes, that multiple viewings of the film reveal varying, even conflicting, interpretations of dialogue, camera shots and scenes. Like an M.C. Escher engraving come to life.

Gabriel Byrne, who comes off as the most charismatic, intense and intellectual of those interviewed, has a few choice words about Hollywood's preference for marketing over storytelling. As you listen to Byrne's scalding remarks, try not to get a sore neck as you briskly nod your head in agreement:

"As long as there are people creatively empowered, there will always be the breaking of the mold. American movies to me, and I've said this before, are becoming more and more homogenous. The marketing objective almost obliterates everything else. It is the lowest common denominator. There's a formulaic predictability to American movies [and that's] allied with the cynicism of the way movies are put together -- the product placement and toys and all kinds of crap that have nothing to do with the telling of stories. They've turned American movies into McMovies. So when the moviegoer gets his movie, it's like a hamburger."

Maybe it's time they replace that golden statuette with golden arches.


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